Chistochina Lodge Was Saved From Fire In 1986, By Surrounding Community

The Copper River Chronicles: Saving Alaska's Way Of Life

Without A Fire Department, Local People Rushed To Save Chistochina Lodge In Mid-Winter

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Chistochina Lodge, around 1986.

A Holiday Gift Of Saving An Historic Alaska Roadhouse From Fire

Terry Weston had been operating the Chistochina Lodge for 4 years on the Tok Cutoff, at the border of the Headwaters Country of Ahtna Territory. It was an old log building along the historic trail to Eagle, and was known, alternately, as a "lodge," a "trading post," and a "roadhouse."

Terry thought she knew something about the Copper River Valley. But, she learned something special in November of 1986, just in time for the holiday season.

Terry was returning from a trip to Anchorage on Friday evening, November 28th. Like so many Copper Valley people did at that time, she had called home from Eureka Lodge on the impossibly long and winding Glenn Highway. Eureka was about an hour away from Glennallen. Chistochina, which was 32 miles up the Tok Cutoff past Gakona Junction, was at least two hours from Eureka. It was 5:15 pm, and all was well. But, by 5:30 pm, the lodge's garage and generator shed were ablaze. Worse, the fire exploded an 800-gallon tank of fuel oil. 

The people of surrounding Chistochina hurtled into action as soon as the buildings caught fire. They hauled a total of six large, wheeled, fire extinguishers to the lodge. And all the hand extinguishers they could find -- even though there was no official "fire department" (volunteer or otherwise) in Chistochina.

The power was out, but neighbors brought a portable generator and all their garden hoses. Then they successfully beat back the blaze, when it jumped to the 2nd story roof of the bunkhouse that was attached to the 65-year old log structure. 

The smoke was so dense it made vision impossible. But Chistochina people are determined. They rushed into the smoke-filled lodge, and stripped the pictures off the walls. 

Then they "moved almost everything out," said Terry. "They had it sitting in the snow. If it had burned down, we would have saved everything in it."  Chistochina Lodge -- the social gathering point of the small rural community -- did not burn down in the winter of 1986, thanks to local people.

The lodge's patrons, and even passing motorists, chopped holes in the sides of the burning bunkhouse wall. And, with the string of hoses snaking down to the borrowed generator in the men's room, they put the fire out.

"I'd like to thank my neighbors," said Terry Weston, referring to the few dozen families strung along the Tok Cutoff nearby. "It was a miracle. Within an hour they had the hoses and generator to help. There isn't that many people here. The smoke was so bad in here you couldn't breathe. And still they were dragging things out. It was wonderful. It sure renews my faith in the human being. I had heard about the Alaskan people, and it sure is true. It's true that they're the first ones to help... I would like to thank the strangers who are no longer strangers."

Chistochina Lodge was one of the older lodges in the Copper Valley. Its log walls sheltered dog mushers from all over Alaska and the world, as a checkpoint for the spring Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race, a commemorative 300-mile dog sled race that's a trial run for the longer Iditarod. In its early days, the 1980's, the race was known as "The Roadhouse Race" because roadhouses like Chistochina were checkpoints.

Many -- in fact most -- of the lodges of the Copper Valley, which were once located around 8 or 10 miles apart on the road systems, had met their fates over the past century and burned down by 1986. So Chistochina Lodge, which was still standing and in use,  was known and beloved not just by locals, but by people from other parts of Alaska. It was a symbol of historic Alaska and days gone by.

The 1986 saving of Chistochina Roadhouse was a temporary one. The lodge burned to the ground exactly 13 years later. In November, 1999.

© Copper River Country Journal, 2015, Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps.

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Jim McKinley Of Copper Center Was Born In The Gold Rush & Lived Into Modern Times

The Copper River Chronicles: Alaska Lifestyles

Ahtna's Traditional Chief  Lived A Life That Mixed Longtime Athabascan & Western Work

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 

An outbuilding from Jim McKinley's cabin, beside the road in Copper Center.

Historian, Trapper, Road & Railroad Worker

Jim McKinley was born at the height of the Gold Rush, on May 3rd, 1899, in Copper Center. His life spanned the years from the Gold Rush to the computer age.

His obituary, when he died June 17th 1991, was a chronicle of the history of the Copper Valley, and the interface between Ahtna Natives and the settlers that came to the region.

He went to school in Copper Center in 1903. In 1906, when he was 7 years old, his grandfather, and many other Ahtna people, tragically died in a great flu epidemic -- a precursor of the better-known 1918 epidemic.

In 1907, he saw his first western-style "boat" -- which  came up the Copper River to Copper Center, and was probably one of the short-lived sternwheelers that plied the region for a few years.  

In 1908, a Russian Orthodox Church was built in Copper Center, near the river, at the spot where eventually a nondenominational church would replace it. 
Historic photo of Ahtna girl with dipnet. (UAF)

In 1909, the 10-year old Jim McKinley traveled to Chitina, by boat, for the first time in his life. There was no road to Chitina at the time.

In 1910, young Jim and his family moved to Upper Tonsina, where they spent the winter. They came back to Copper Center that summer to dipnet.

In 1912, Jim remembered that he saw his first fishwheel in the Copper River. 

Demonstration Fishwheel at Ahtna Cultural Center.

Both dipnets and fishwheels have gone on to become symbols of Copper River Valley "subsistence" fishing. The dipnet was an Athabascan invention. It was a longhandled, willow "net" which was used to scoop salmon from platforms jutting out into the Copper River. People still use dipnets (though now made of aluminum) to catch fish at Chitina.

The fishwheel is an invention that is also still in use. It is a large, turning wheel that runs with the current. Fish headed upriver along the bank swim into the wheel and are trapped and shunted into a sidebox where they are later removed by the fisherman.

Jim McKinley's life story shows the precarious ups and downs of Copper Valley life. During the pre-World War I years, stylish Americans wore furs, and fur prices soared. Jim McKinley and his family hunted for live wild foxes during 1913, and 1914, when prices were high. But prices crashed.

In 1917, he worked at the Copper River Canyon Cannery, dip netting fish and selling them for 8 cents apiece to the canneries.

1918 Spanish Flu story in the Chitina Leader newspaper.
On display at the George Ashby Museum in Copper Center. 

In 1919, there was another flu epidemic in Copper Center, and many local people died. 

By 1920, Jim had found work in Paxson, north of Gulkana on the Richardson Highway, toward Fairbanks. Then he went to work for the Copper River Northwest Railway for 3 months. The railway connected the Kennicott copper mines to Chitina, and from there, to the port of Cordova, where copper was shipped down the coast to the rest of the United States.

In the winter of 1920, Jim McKinley trapped.  In 1921, he worked for the Alaska Road Commission. In 1923, he was hired to groom the Richardson Highway;  President Harding was coming to Alaska, and it was thought he might come by way of the the highway. Instead, the president traveled on the Alaska Railway. 
Jim McKinley sits in the spring sun outside his cabin.

That year, too, Jim McKinley's father bought him a Model T. He was married to Ellafina Joe, who was born in Knik. In 1924, he worked on the Copper River Railway in Chitina, and on the highway.

In 1929, he worked in a cannery at Valdez, with Bill Egan, who was later to become governor of Alaska.

In 1930, he worked at the Dadina Gold Mine, trapped in the winter, and then worked on the road again in the spring.

And, also in 1930, he again worked on the Copper River Railway. In 1934, he worked at Chistochina for the Nabesna Mining Camp. In 1935, he worked at Paxson all summer, and trapped all winter at Klutina.

In 1936, he spent the summer taking care of a sick uncle, and trapped in the winter. In 1939, he worked at Valdez all winter, and in the fall he worked on the road. In 1940, he trapped again at Klutina, and in 1941 he worked in Kenny Lake. When the  Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he worked on the Glenn Highway all summer long, as part of the effort to make sure there was a strong overland connection from Anchorage through the Copper Valley and into Canada, down to the rest of the United States.

In 1946, Jim McKinley converted to Christianity.

Jim McKinley was an ardent Christian who was pastor of Copper Center Chapel for a long time.

He was also traditional Chief of Copper Center Village, and an official spokesman, who recounted historical events at potlatches and other meetings. Jim McKinley died in 1991.

© Copper River Country Journal, 2015, Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps.

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How The Odds Were Overcome & Alaska's Salmon Were Saved For The Future By Ken Roberson

The Copper River Chronicles: Alaska' s Unsung Heroes

Plastic Buckets, Warm Water, & Copper River Ingenuity Built Alaska's Gulkana Hatchery

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 

The Gulkana Hatchery.

The Story Of Ken Roberson & The Saving Of The Salmon Of The Copper River Watershed

Digging the groundwork for the world's largest wild salmon hatchery. With shovels.
Ken Roberson was the fish biologist for the Copper River Valley. Several years ago, he retired and moved with his wife, Vera, to warmer climes.

In the time he worked for Fish & Game out of the Glennallen office, he practically single-handedly led the charge to preserve and enhance the red salmon run in the Copper River by finding a good location, in (somewhat) warmish spring water north of Paxson, Alaska in which to start a home-grown, from-the-ground-up fish hatchery for the Copper River.

The Gulkana River Hatchery was begun in 1973 with Copper River ingenuity.

It was only a fluke that Ken Roberson was also a state employee.

First and foremost, he operated with a seat-of-your-pants innovative drive that had nothing to do with how government does things. 

Everything he did when he began that hatchery was based on sheer intuition, ingenuity and bravado -- the Copper River way. He worked to invent homemade incubators for the fish to thrive, banging together plywood and whatever was available in the sparse world of the Copper Valley, far from easy supply lines of specific scientific gear and equipment. 

Plan For The Gulkana Salmon Hatchery. (From
He ran bucket brigades, with a rope tied across the creek. Workers stood in the water, moving the buckets across the stream. The workers were protected from falling into the icy water only by holding onto the rope, as they physically transferred eggs and fish.

The entire operation was put together on a shoestring. It was a duct-tape operation of the first order -- the quintessential "Copper River" style enterprise. By 1984, this little hatchery on a lonely creek just north of the scrappy little roadhouse of Paxson Lodge had turned into the largest operation of its kind in the world. 

It was a facility with heart, firmly tied to the needs and peculiarities of Alaskan rural life. For example, for years, the salmon that had been stripped of their eggs were piled up on the riverbank, and local dogmushers (who were paying dearly for the commercial dried dogfood eaten by their teams) were encouraged to drive on out to the hatchery and retrieve the salmon. The spent fish were then taken home and boiled up for their animals throughout the winter. It was a small touch -- caring about the region's sled dogs and the mushers -- but vitally Alaskan; the hatchery was a part of the upper Copper Valley community.

What Came Before Ken Roberson

Ken Roberson's is one of the few positive stories about the Copper River watershed and its salmon that exists.

The impact of outsiders on the Copper River fishery has a greedy and  shameful history.

In 1885, Lt. Henry Allen struggled his way through the Copper Valley, and  successfully became the first outsider to enter the region. 

The young Lieutenant's success started a debacle. Two years later, in 1887, a commercial cannery was put up at the mouth of the river, by Pacific Packing Company, a San Francisco firm. In 1889, there was another cannery, by another San Francisco firm. By the 1890's, before the gold miners arrived, there were two hundred  outsiders living at the mouth of the Copper River, taking salmon.

Salmon can labels at a B&B in Cordova, Alaska.
In 1916, an estimated 300 Copper River Athabascan Indians were living along the rivers -- the  equivalent of one for every mile of the 300 mile long river's length. They lived along tributaries --  the most significant being the 75 mile long Klutina, and the 80 mile long Gulkana.  The Copper River was like the trunk of a mighty tree, and its branches, its tributaries,  came from glaciers deep in the valley. Every salmon in every river in the Copper River Valley was a "Copper River" salmon, and all of them had to pass through Abercrombie Canyon on their migrations back and forth to their spawning grounds upriver.

At Abercrombie Canyon, 55 miles upstream from Cordova, entrepreneurs built an inland cannery, to block the salmon entering the Copper River Valley. They used the Copper River & Northwestern Railway to transport their product back to Cordova, where it was shipped south.

Salmon were railed across trestles like this.

The Copper River Railroad, which started in Cordova, crossed over the upper delta 20 miles upstream, and traveled along the river banks, 131 miles upstream to Chitina. It was a perfect means of transport. 

The canneries grew exponentially. In 1914, 299,699 salmon were caught. In 1915, 670,416 salmon were snagged. By 1916, the thousands of fathoms of gill nets, and 48 dip nets where "one fisherman may dip as many as 1,000 salmon in a single day, when the run is heavy" according to the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, brought in 869,350 total salmon to the 5 canneries that were filling the railcars with food from the Copper River Valley.

While all this was happening, people upriver -- the original people -- were desperate. 

At that time, when there were those estimated 300 Ahtna living upriver from the canneries, the Ahtna  complained that their livelihood, their fish, were being blocked.  The U.S. government scoffed at the idea. "With respect to the complaints of the Indians, it may be said that as long ago as 1905, when but one cannery was in operation in the Copper River district, the same story of shortage of food  was heard and the same cry of destruction of the salmon fishery was made as at present when  five canneries are in the field, yet the Indians have lived through the intervening years and  have had an ample supply of salmon whenever they made reasonable efforts to get it." 

The muddy Copper River. Photo, Neil Hannan.
By 1918, a million salmon were being hauled from the lower Copper River, and shipped out from the canneries, through the use of 50,000 fathoms of gill net. (That's 300,000 feet of net, crisscrossing the Copper River.)

The growth of misuse of Alaska's big, muddy ice-cold salmon stream, with its 5 types of the fattest, highest quality fish in Alaska, was phenomenal. The 2-mile long 1,000 foot wide Abercrombie Canyon was a squeeze point where wholesale slaughter could take place. 

(There are photographs on the internet today of Abercrombie Canyon at its worst, They are used as examples of "Proof of Traditional and Customary Use" on Alaska dipnetting websites. The photos show dozens of paid dipnetters at dipnetting stations in the canyon, scooping up fish.  It didn't seem like it was a problem back then. And to many, it doesn't seem like a problem even now. Above a photo of an early commercial dipnetter with a trough full of Copper River salmon, a modern-day dipnetter has wryly quipped: "Check this out, subsistence fans. Is 1914 far enough back to qualify?")

Then, in 1918, it began to be obvious that something very wrong was happening.

Workers at the Gulkana Fish 
Hatchery, north of Paxson.
The Native Ahtna upriver were right.  Even the U.S. government agreed, writing (somewhat
defensively):  "While there may have been some disagreement with regard to details there was a unanimity in opinion in respect to essentials -- the run of salmon was being depleted and something should be done to stop it."

 During that long-ago crisis, U.S. Secretary of Commerce had completely taken over control of the Copper Valley's salmon, and was holding hearings -- not with the Ahtna and people in the Copper Valley -- but in Seattle.

As is so common, local people who actually live in the Copper Valley are considered non-important -- or even non-existent. This problem continues to this day. 

Anchorage Fred Meyer Grocery brags about having "Copper River Salmon."
The Right Person In The Right Place

Like all of us who have come to the Copper Valley and who grew up elsewhere, Ken Roberson was an "outsider." But, unlike many outsiders (and this includes the confusingly-named "Chitina Dipnetters" who are not from Chitina, but mainly from Fairbanks) he decided to give. Not to take.

In this brief review of what happened upon the "discovery" of the Copper River's salmon, it's pretty clear that "taking" was what it was all about. 

Ken Roberson (right) was also a longtime 
volunteer at the local Chamber of Commerce, as well
as head of the Copper Valley EMS program.
Ken Roberson went in the other direction. Every single person who uses Copper River reds -- including Chitina Dipnetters, Cordova fishermen, sports fishermen, Copper Valley immigrants and the Ahtna people, who continue to see these fish as a cornerstone to local life, culture,
health and basic everyday survival --  owes something to Ken Roberson for working to right the wrongs, and to bring a steady stream of high-quality fish to the region. 

Photo of low-tech wooden hatcheries from a 
report by Ken Roberson on the internet.
Enlisting the professional advice of others, Ken Roberson worked in a manner that dramatically reversed the type of decimation that the canneries had inflicted on the river. He began to work out a plan for how to replenish, and ensure the future of, Copper River salmon.

In 1973, with a single homemade incubator, there were 220,000 salmon eggs at the fledgling Gulkana Hatchery. The next year, Fish & Game added four more units, with a capacity of 1.25 million eggs. By 1979 there were 10 units. In 1980, 20 units. 

By 1984, there were 50 units, with a capacity of 25 million eggs. In 1988, it had shot up to 70 units, with a capacity of 35 million salmon eggs. Tens of millions of salmon fry came out of that little roadside hatchery -- stocking Paxson Lake, Ten Mile Lake, Summit Lake, and Crosswind Lake. And showing that human beings -- Copper River Valley human beings -- can choose to right wrongs and to go forward, instead of backward. 

Today, Cordova, the small coastal commercial fishing town that is just outside the Copper River watershed, near the delta of the Copper River, has organized what is known as "The Copper River Watershed Project." The group recently began looking for "Watershed Heroes" but, to date, they hadn't tripped over the obvious. They had yet to choose the Copper Valley's Ken Roberson for the honor.

So what's a "hero?" A hero is somebody who doesn't even know what they're doing is heroic. Somebody who is quite ordinary, but driven. A hero is not a "good" or "cool" person. Or a charismatic person. Or a totally beloved-by-everybody person. Heroes are more complicated. And most heroic deeds are never seen, understood, or formally noted -- by the hero himself, or by those around him.  Especially in the Copper River Valley, which, per capita, is crowded with the most unlikely bunch of genuine heroes that you can imagine. It's a place that is so difficult to live in that it lends itself to heroics all the time -- in everyday life. 

People cleaning fish on the Gulkana River, downstream 
from the Gulkana Hatchery. 
In this overlooked world of unheralded heroes, if you want to officially name somebody -- especially for the specific work of doing something positive about enhancing the Copper River watershed, Ken's a really good choice.

Ken Roberson is a hero because he was in the right place, at the right time -- armed with some sheets of plywood, some rope, some drywall buckets and a determination to set things straight with the Copper River watershed.

Before there were awards, or committees, or organizations dedicated to the Copper River, Ken Roberson did something that turned around the river's history. The entire Copper River watershed would be very different right now if Ken Roberson had not been working out of that little office in Glennallen in the 1970's, and then followed through on his idiosyncratic, bullheaded and incredibly effective ideas to build -- from the ground up -- the world's largest salmon fry production facility. In the wilds of Alaska. Because it was the right thing to do.

© Copper River Country Journal, 2015, Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps.

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The Days When Dog Teams Were Used Between Roadhouses On Alaska's Winter Roads

Dog Teams Hauled Supplies From The Copper Valley's Roadhouses & Trading Posts

Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 

Dog team crossing sign in rural Alaska.

1995 Interview With Sy Neeley Of Glennallen, Alaska

"When I lived at Chistochina, when I was growing up, the teams that came around there were work teams. They were hauling their summer groceries back to wherever they came from -- Chisana, Nabesna -- from Chistochina Trading Post. 

"My Dad had the trading post there. Bob Dittman's aunts owned the old Gulkana Lodge, prior to Ken O'Hara. Ken O'Hara had the bus line that came from Anchorage to Fairbanks. It was a two-day trip. There was no 60-miles-an-hour on the road in those days. It used to take my dad an hour from Chistochina to Gakona Lodge.

"They were big teams. Big, heavy dogs. If they didn't get somewhere between 75 and 115 lbs. they got rid of them. They were big work dogs. They were like Clydesdales and Percherons -- you don't take Arabians out in the field.

Chistochina Trading Post. Photo by
"The roads weren't open all the time in those days. The roads were closed in the winter time. We had a team when we came to the roadhouse in Chistochina, in 1942. Hank Read had a boarding program there. Took care of dogs -- $5 a dog per month. The Lodge had their own dogs there. 

"When we came there was a little over 100 dogs there, when we got there. That's the first thing my Dad did. Inform Hank Read that the dogs would have to go. My Dad didn't like that many dogs around. They weren't loose, by the way. They were all tied up or in pens. Dad didn't go for all that noise.

Modern-day sled dogs in Chistochina, Alaska. 
(Photo, courtesy Evelyn Beeter)
"We came from Valdez up here. We came from Sitka to Valdez. We slowly worked our way up north. Dad got as far as Chistochina. He said that was far enough north for him. He wasn't going any farther. It's not even close to the same country now as it was then. 

"In those days you could leave your gear where you dropped it on the side of the road. Everything was safe. Our country has changed very rapidly. It started changing the time of statehood, or after statehood. It really started to change after the Second World War. It seemed like it was no time at all until 1969, until the Pipeline started to arrive. Since that time, now it has changed dramatically. One thing I see is the community has become a very transient community..."

© Copper River Country Journal, January 19, 1995, Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps.

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